By Addy Hatch, WSU College of Nursing

People love their pets, but for senior citizens, a companion animal can also be powerful medicine, helping to ease loneliness, lift depression, and spur physical activity and social interaction.

Lynn Jinishian, a WSU College of Nursing instructor, knows this, which is why she works on two fronts to bring the healing power of pets to senior citizens.

Jinishian and her dog Lola became a certified therapy team through Pet Partners in August. And more recently the instructor took a group of nursing students to learn from senior citizens in Spokane just how important their dogs are to them.

Jinishian arranged for students to visit with seniors who take their dogs for training to Pawsitive Connection Dog Training. All five of the seniors who agreed to participate had moderate to severe health issues, but Jinishian didn’t tell the students that. Instead, she paired up students with the seniors and let them chat for an hour.

The exercise helped students in several ways, Jinishian said. It gave the first-year nursing students practice in the kind of questioning about health and medications they’ll do daily in their careers. It also brought them into contact with “community-dwelling” seniors, versus the patients in long-term care they’ll work with in their clinical assignments. And it helped them see the importance of the bond between the person and his or her dog.

“One of the women, who has Parkinson’s, is convinced her dog has kept her well,” Jinishian said.

She believes it’s important for the nursing students to learn the different mechanisms that lead to healthier lives.

“How do elders in our community stay well? One of the ways they do that is by having a pet,” she said.

Jinishian and Lola, a Labradoodle, went through the process of becoming certified as a therapy team through Pet Partners, a nonprofit that’s been doing such work for decades. Certification involves online coursework, followed by an in-person evaluation for both the handler and animal – which can be one of nine species, not just dogs. Jinishian plans to begin making therapy visits with Lola next year.

Lynn Jinishian with her dog Lola.
Lynn Jinishian with her dog Lola.

She understands how pets can help a person, because Lola helped her, Jinishian said. Her older dog had died and she was working a lot, so she was sad and stressed. Lola lifted that mood, which prompted Jinishian to begin reading about connections between people and their pets.

Numerous studies have shown a relationship between having a pet and better health. A study published in “Nature” this month, for example, concluded dogs can help lower cardiovascular disease risk in single-person households by offering social support and motivation for exercise.

Said Jinishian, “I know so many people who believe they would not be at the same level of health without their pets.”